The iron queen, p.34
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       The Iron Queen, p.34

         Part #3 of The Iron Fey series by Julie Kagawa
 
Page 34

 

  The Clockmaker, whoever he was, was nowhere to be seen. A stuffed green chair sat in the corner, an island of comfort in the sea of clutter, though at the moment it was far from empty.

  A huge, mirror-coated feline lay curled up on the cushion, breathing deeply as if asleep. Definitely not Grimalkin; I recognized the same type of creature that had attacked us on our way to the city. Before I could decide what to do, slitted emerald eyes opened and the cat bolted upright with a snarl. We drew our swords, the screech of blades nearly drowned out by the sudden booming of a grandfather clock in the corner. The cat hissed and immediately rippled out of sight. I quickly reached for my own magic, trying to see where the cat went, ready to yell out instructions to Ash and Puck. But instead of attacking, the cat-shaped spot of glamour leaped onto a table, miraculously avoiding the many clocks that littered the surface, and bounded from the room, vanishing though a small entrance in the back.

  “There you are,” said a voice. “Right on time. ”

  A small, hunched creature pushed aside a curtain and came waddling down the rows of tables. He was half my height and wore a bright red vest with several pocket watches adorning the fabric. His head was a cross between human and mouse, with large round ears, bright beady eyes, and a mustache that looked suspiciously like whiskers. A thin, tufted tail swayed behind him as he walked, and a pair of tiny gold glasses perched on the end of his nose.

  “Hello, Meghan Chase,” he greeted, hopping onto a stool and pulling a watch out of his vest, observing it sagely. “It is very good to meet you at last. I would put on a pot of tea, but I’m afraid you have no time to stay and chat. Pity. ” He blinked at my silence, then must’ve noticed the wary looks of my companions.

  “Oh, don’t mind Ripple. I keep him around for the gremlins. Nasty little things, gremlins, always getting into the gear heads, throwing everything off. Now, Meghan Chase…” He put his watch away and folded his long fingers to his chest, gazing up at me. “Our time is fading fast. Why have you come?”

  I gave a start. “What…don’t you know? You already knew my name, and when I was coming. ”

  “Of course. ” The Clockmaker twitched his whiskers. “Of course I knew what time you would get here, girl. Just as I know what time Goodfellow will knock over my nineteenth-century French mantle clock. ” Puck jerked up at this, bumping a table and sending a clock crashing to the floor. “To the second,” the Clockmaker sighed, closing his eyes. Opening them again, he observed me with a piercingly bright gaze, ignoring Puck as he quickly put the clock back on the table, trying to piece it together again. “I see how everything starts, and the exact moment its time runs out. But that was not my question, Meghan Chase. I know why you are here. The question is, do you?”

  I shared a look with Ash, who shrugged. “I’m looking for the false king,” I said, wincing as Puck dropped something small and shiny with a curse, sending it rolling across the floor. “Ironhorse said you might be able to help. ”

  “Ironhorse?” The Clockmaker’s whiskers trembled, and he hopped down from the stool, waddling across the room. “I saw when his clock stopped, when his time finally ran out. He was one of the great ones, though his fate was tied directly to King Machina. When Machina’s seconds trickled away, it was only a matter of time before Ironhorse stopped, too. ”

  I swallowed the lump in my throat at the thought of Ironhorse. “We need to find the false king,” I said. “Do you know where he is?”

  “No. ” The Clockmaker sniffed, picking up a bolt and frowning at it. “I do not. ”

  I blew out my breath in a huff. “Then why are we here?”

  “All in good time, my dear. All in good time. ” Shooing Puck away from the table, the Clockmaker turned to his work. His long fingers flew over the clock, barely distinguishable blurs, like he was typing something in fast-forward. “I told you, girl, I know the time things happen, and when they end. I do not know the reasons why. Nor do I know the location of the false king. ” He straightened, fishing in his vest to pull out a white cloth, which he used to polish the oncebroken clock. “However, I do know this. You will find him, and find him soon. Your destiny, and the destiny of many others, are shown in the faces of the clocks, ticking away together. So, you see, girl. ” He picked up the clock and hopped from the stool, pausing to stare at me with beady eyes. “You already know everything you need to find him. ”

  I bit down my impatience. This was useless. And every second we wasted here, Puck and Ash’s amulets were corroding, succumbing to the poison of the Iron Realm. “Please,” I told the Clockmaker, “we don’t have much…time. If you say you can help us, do it now so we can be on our way. ”

  “Yes,” agreed the Clockmaker, turning to face me fully. “Now it is time. ”

  He reached into his vest, and pulled out a large iron key on a silk ribbon.

  “This is yours,” he said solemnly, handing it over. “Keep it safe. Do not lose it, for you will need it soon. ”

  I took the key, watching it spin and dangle in the light. “What is it for?”

  “I do not know. ” The Clockmaker blinked at my frown. “As I said, girl; I only know the when of a thing. I do not know the hows and whys. But I do know this: in one hundred and sixty-one hours, thirteen minutes, and fifty-two seconds, you will need that key. ”

  “A hundred and sixty hours? That’s several days from now. How am I supposed to keep track?”

  “Take this. ” The Clockmaker reached into the other side of his vest and drew forth a pocket watch, spinning hypnotically on a gold chain. “Everyone should have a time device,” he stated as he handed it to me. “I do not know how the oldbloods do it, never worrying about time. I would find it simply maddening. So, I give this to you. ”

  “I…um…appreciate it. ”

  His whiskers twitched. “I am sure you do. Oh, and one last thing. That watch you hold, Meghan Chase? Its life span is drawing to a close. Thirty-two minutes and twelve seconds from the time you use that key, it will cease to run. ”

  I felt a chill in the warm, cozy room. “What does that mean?”

  “It means,” the Clockmaker said, his beady eyes never blinking as they stared at me, “that in one hundred and sixty-one hours, forty-five minutes, and fiftyeight seconds, something will happen to make that watch stop.

  “Now. ” He smiled at me—at least, I think he did—beneath his whiskers and gave me a slight bow. “I believe our time together has come to an end. Good luck to you, Meghan Chase,” he said as he waddled out of the room. “Remember, it ends at the beginning. And give my regards to the first lieutenant, when you see him. ” He pushed aside the curtains over the door, slipped through, and was gone. I sighed. Threading the key through the watch’s chain, I looped the whole thing around my neck. “Just once, I’d like it if a faery could give me a straight answer,” I muttered as Ash pulled up the trapdoor again. “Seems to me this whole trip was a waste of time, time we don’t have. And where the hell is Grimalkin?

  Maybe he could make some sense of everything, if he didn’t keep disappearing every time I turn around. ”

  “I am right here, human. ” Grimalkin appeared on the chair, curled up much as the larger cat had been. His tail thumped the cushion irritably. “Where I was for much of the conversation. It is not my fault you cannot see past the end of your nose. ” With an offended air, the cat leaped from the cushion and slipped out the trapdoor, not stopping to look back.

  Great, now the cat was mad at me. Knowing Grimalkin, I’d have to beg and plead for him to tell us what he knew, or offer up my firstborn son or something. Frustrated, I stomped back down the stairs, Ash and Puck trailing behind. Outside, the city glittered with lights, both natural and artificial, but except for the gremlins, chattering and buzzing in the shadows, the streets themselves were empty. I wondered how much time we had lost, coming here. I wondered, despite Grimalkin’s assurances, if it had really been necessary.

 
Where to now?” Ash mused, looking at me. “Do we have a destination?”

  “Yes,” I said decisively, almost relieved to be back on track. “The tower. ”

  “The tower? Machina’s tower?”

  I nodded. “That’s the only place I know of to find the false king. The Clockmaker said so himself—it ends at the beginning. Everything started with him. Machina’s tower is where we have to go. ”

  “Sounds good to me,” Puck said, crossing his arms. “We have a plan. Finally. So, uh…how do we get there? I don’t see any information booths selling maps. ”

  I closed my eyes, trying to remember the Iron King’s tower and the path we took to get there. I saw the railroad, cutting straight through a flat obsidian plain, lava pools and smokestacks littering the ground. I remembered walking down that road with Ash, the sun glaring in our faces, toward the stark black monolith rising in the distance.

  “East,” I muttered, opening my eyes. “Machina’s tower is in the very center of the Iron Realm. If we head east, we should be able to find it. ”

  CHAPTER SIXTEEN

  ECHOES OF THE PAST

  We walked for nearly two days, stopping only to catch a few hours of exhausted sleep before heading eastward again. Following the rising sun, we traveled through a marsh of bubbling oil, where the rusty hulls of cars lay rotting in the sludge, through a forest of street lamps and telephone poles, where strange electrical birds flitted from wire to wire, leaving sparks in their wake. We walked past “the Valley of Worms,” as Puck called it, a gully filled with thousands of discarded computers, crawling with huge worms, some bigger than pythons, their metallic blue hides lit with hundreds of blinking lights and sparks. Thankfully, they seemed blind to, or uncaring of, our presence, but my heart was still pounding against my ribs miles after we left the Valley of Worms behind. As we traveled, I began to feel a strange pulse from the land, faint at first, but growing stronger the farther we went. As if something was calling to me, drawing me close like the pull of a magnet. And the eerie thing was, if I closed my eyes and really concentrated, I could feel the center of the Iron Realm, like an invisible bull’s-eye in my mind. I didn’t mention it to Ash and Puck, unsure if it was just a crazy hunch, but I caught Grimalkin watching me once or twice, glowing cat eyes serious and thoughtful, as if he knew something was going on. On the second day, we reached the edge of a vast desert, a sea of sand dunes, rising and falling with the wind. I’d never seen the ocean, but I imagined it must be something like this, only with water instead of sand, sprawling and endless, stretching away into the horizon. To our left, a wall of sheer black cliffs soared up over the dunes, and wind-pushed waves crashed against the jagged rocks, spraying dust into the air like sea foam.